Ruminating on Returning

With so much to see in the world (and currently so much time to plan) Tucker and I find ourselves talking about trips we’d like to take fairly often. We typically have no problem jumping into the logistics and research of a given location, but we do sometimes get stuck on the initial “where should we go” question. There are so many places we’d absolutely love to visit, but there is also a growing list of places we’d really like to return to; places we clearly haven’t explored thoroughly enough for our liking; places, including but not limited to:

The Netherlands

472549_4075793461494_1409717026_oThis was an obvious choice for this particular list because we only spent about 23 hours in the country. It was our first foray into long-layover travel, and we definitely fumbled our way through it. It wasn’t too difficult to get from the airport to the city center (and back again), but as we set off with absolutely no plan, it was mostly just a long walk around the beautiful canals. Amsterdam is a great walking city though, so even with our random ambling, we were able to take in the numerous and iconic bridges, bicycles, and fry-stands. We also explored the infamous Red Light District and (from a distance) the I AMsterdam sign, which is sadly no longer there.

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Pre-smartphone days

If/when we return, however, there many things we have added to our NL itinerary. Mostly notably, all the incredible museums that we missed! Anne Frank, Van Gogh, Rembrandt – we definitely needed more time. I also want to visit Castle De Haar, see the tulips, and maybe spend the night in a houseboat. We’ll also need to do a better job of trying some Dutch specialties on our next trip: poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes), bitterballen (fried meat balls), and some fresh Gouda, for a start.

Finland

414107_4076007586847_1513337318_oNext on our “must return to” list is Finland, which might not have been an obvious choice seeing as we spent almost three weeks there, but at the time we 1) had very little money to spend, 2) were exhausted from finishing up our undergrad degrees, and 3) had just gotten married, which as anyone who has planned a wedding can attest, left us feeling a bit burnt out. Typically when we travel now, we avoid suitcases and we move around a lot, but as this was our first trip sans car, we failed miserably at both packing lightly and at utilizing public transportation. We also weren’t able to afford train passes or much of anything at that time; in fact, our flights and accommodations were wrangled together with the help of some of our wedding gifts and useful family connections. Regardless of what now seems like a trip very far removed from our usual preferences, at the time is was magical.

It was actually my first trip overseas, and I quite literally cried on the plane from sheer excitement. Even with very little planning and even less travel experience, we found time to act our age in a youth hostel in the Olympic Stadium of Helsinki; we then honeymooned properly in a cabin (with its very own sauna) at a lakeside resort in Kajaani, and we also watched a series of bizarre sunsets around 11pm each night. I really wouldn’t change anything about our time in Finland, but for the next visit, I do have a list of a few more things I’d like to see/do. Things like: cross into the Arctic Circle, see the Northern Lights, meet Santa Claus, go snowshoeing, step foot in Turku, and visit Olavinlinna Castle, all while listening to my favorite language in the world: suomen.

The Bahamas

536438_10200935610700815_1786181392_nTechnically we’ve been to the Bahamas a few times now, but does it really count if it’s on a cruise? I mean, don’t get me wrong, cruises are fun and economical, but they definitely keep you in a bit of a bubble. For this reason, I would love to go back to the Bahamas, without the big boat. I think it would be amazing to fly into Nassau and explore New Providence Island a little more slowly and a lot more thoroughly. There are several forts I want to see on the island, not to mention the art galleries, lighthouses, and, of course, the beaches (especially the ones on the far side of the island). At some point Tucker and I want to get our diving certification so we can explore the depths too, or if we don’t have time for that, then I want to do one of those bubble helmet dives instead!

South Korea

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Chimek

Another clear case of not enough time: our quick trip to South Korea still feels like a bit of a blur. I had just spent a month studying abroad in China, but before taking the long plane ride back to the US, Tucker and I tacked on a few days in Seoul as well. Luckily we had our very own personal tour guide as a former student of mine (and his wife) took us around the city showing us all the famous sights and, more importantly, the best eats. We tried to act cool in Gangnam, we saw the famous Blue House, we crisscrossed the many bridges and marveled at the surrounding mountains. We were also treated to the most amazing Korean BBQ, bingsu (shaved ice dessert), chimek (fried chicken and beer), and soju (traditional Korean alcohol), which fueled our love of gochujang (red chili paste) for years to come. It was truly unlike any trip we’d ever taken, and spending the time with new friends was the best part.

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Thanks Hyung-Bin and Jessica!

Of course, with so little time (and a tightly packed and carefully arranged agenda), we didn’t really even make it out of the capital. Next time, we’d love to see the notorious DMZ or to head south to the highly regarded Jeju Island. I find that a lot of my Korean students speak very fondly of the nature in their home country, and I’d love to hike a mountain, view a waterfall, or whatever else is going on in the season we find ourselves in. I’m also pretty sure I’ll never get my fill of Korean food, so obviously we need more time and access on that front. I know we didn’t even try half of what was on our list, and everything we did try, we mostly certainly want to have again!

Italy

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So sick 😦

Does anyone feel like they’ve ever seen enough of Italy? I feel like even Italians are always discovering new things they want to do and see in a country that clearly has culture coming out of every orifice. Speaking of orifices, mine were a bit sneeze-y, stuffy, and runny when we took our trip to Rome a few years ago. It was actually a bit heartbreaking to not be able to fully taste what many people regard as the king of international cuisines. Due to my weakened state and a surprise address from the Pope that weekend, we weren’t able to check off quite as many things as we’d hoped in planning that particular trip. Fortunately, we did still hit most of the highlights of the Eternal City, plus we got to see the Pope pop his head out of the little carpeted window in the Vatican, so how can I really complain?

For Rome specifically though, I know we need to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums (when we were there, the wait to go inside was over 4 hours long). We also opted not to go into the Colosseum when we were there, partly because of crowds but also because it just looked so touristy. In hindsight, we regret not taking a closer look at such a historic structure. And then, there’s the rest of Italy we still need to explore: the fashion of Milan, the waterways of Venice, the architecture of Pisa, the art of Florence, the pizza of Naples; I mean really, there is so so much we still have to see in Italy. I also want to have a clear nose and a few more cannoli taste-tests next time.

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Waiting to hear Pope Francis

Germany

13726595_10210193233855608_8528054797553861878_nGermany unfortunately represents another set of rookie moves on our part. We spent a year living just a few hours over the border in central Poland, yet we failed to A) make it to Oktoberfest and B) visit Bavaria, the most quintessential of all the German regions. While I do sorely regret not making time for southern Germany, we did really enjoy our time in Berlin and Potsdam looking at the incredible architecture, sampling the infamous brews, and picnicking in the numerous parks. It was an absolutely lovely time, but of course, I’d love to go back for a festival or two. It’s really not our fault we missed Oktoberfest; we had wrongly assumed it took place in October, but really it’s more of a September event that actually ends in early October. Ah well, it’s on the list for our inevitable return trip. As are other famous places like: Neuschwanstein Castle, the Rhine, Cologne, and, of course, Bavaria.

Mongolia

22489965_10214825998711834_2745602979160999147_nPerhaps unlike any other place we had been, Mongolia intrigued us in so many ways. It’s really a breathtakingly beautiful country that exceeded every expectation we had for it. We visited for about a week in 2017, but unfortunately a lot of that time was taken up by work (conferences, presentations, etc.) In our free time though, we were able to pretty thoroughly explore Ulaanbaatar, including temples, yurt neighborhoods, live-music bars, and amazingly trendy restaurants. We also took a short road trip out to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which was honestly a bit frightening for me (mostly because we opted to dismiss the rental insurance), but ultimately it gave us the best glimpse of what life is like outside UB.

It was this glimpse that sparked our conversations of returning to Mongolia. We’d love to experience more of the steppes, perhaps to try our hand at some serious horseback riding, yurt living, and other nomadic fundamentals. I’m also really eager to return to Mongolia in the dead of winter because Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked the world’s coldest capital, and that’s something I want to experience. Although, on the flip side, I also want to make the long trek out to the Gobi dessert or the Flaming Cliffs; as one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the nature in the Land of Eternal Blue Sky is unspoiled and absolutely stunning. Okay, so apparently we need two or three more trips to Mongolia.

Malaysia

51666025_10218814551103151_7277803769331449856_nLast on this list (for now) is a place we actually visited just last year. On our way back to China from a work event in the Philippines, we took a bit of a roundabout path that allowed us to spend almost a week in Malaysia, well, in and around Kuala Lumpur anyway. Malaysia is a tricky country to fully explore in a short amount of time because it’s made up of part of a peninsula (West Malaysia) and part of the island of Borneo (East Malaysia), the two regions being about 400 miles apart. For this reason, although we feel pretty good about our exploration of the amazing capital city, typically called KL for short, we still really want to explore some of the other regions of this incredibly diverse country.

51743204_10218802008229587_1851030617089638400_nWe never made it to a beach while we were in Malaysia, so maybe we’ll start there on a subsequent trip. There are many islands off the coasts of both West and East Malaysia that look amazingly beautiful and relaxing. There are also several world-renowned national parks, which are home to a collection of unique indigenous species that Tucker really wants to check out. Of course, as we found in KL, Malaysia seems to enjoy extremes sports as well, so maybe we’ll try the popular zip-lining, white water rafting, or jungle trekking activities while we’re at it!

65967210_10219977305371281_6241891798231285760_nOf course, there are three countries, not previously mentioned, that are and will indefinitely be on our return radar: the United States, Poland, and China. These are the places we have the greatest connection to, and thus will need many re-visits and reunions to sustain us. Luckily, our friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, Łódź, Hefei, and Shanghai continue to make us feel like we never left. Traveling around the world and learning about different cultures and languages has been a huge part of my life, and I sincerely hope it always will be. Whether we make it back to any of these places, or onto any of the other 150+ countries still on my list, I’ll forever be grateful for these opportunities and the people who have had a hand in making them happen.

Top 8 Underrated Travel Destinations

New York City, Rome, and Bangkok are amazing places to travel. There is so much to see and do in these cities, and all sorts of information available for planning a trip there (and many other cities on the same scale), but sometimes we want to try something new, go somewhere equally interesting, but perhaps not as well-known. I’m a big fan of this type of travel, the less expected places where I usually learn more from the locals themselves than any possible book or website. If you also like exploring lesser-known destinations or just want to try something new, here is my list of 8 underrated travel destinations that I think everyone would fall in love with.

#8 Milwaukee, WI

20479485_10214176655838668_1628109147533371960_n (1)Okay, I realize Milwaukee is not the most glamorous or exotic city on anyone’s list, but hear me out. This smallish city, famous for its breweries and cheese, is only about an hour north of Chicago. Perhaps because of this, it can sometimes be overshadowed by the fame of its neighbor; however, in addition to the flavorful brews and delicious cheese curds, the city also lies along Lake Michigan with a river running straight through its center (sound familiar?). It also has a very strong European influence, which can be seen in the architecture and abundance of towering cathedrals. It might be less than half the size of Chicago (and about half as expensive!), but this city has been modernizing in a way that would make any European enthusiast proud. Many historical neighborhoods have been beautifully restored, the additions of a city Riverwalk and a new park have livened up the outdoor scene, and if you’re brave enough to endure the temperatures, the city is absolutely breathtaking in the winter.

Things to see/do: walk along the Milwaukee Riverwalk, test out some local beers at one of the many breweries (I recommend Lakefront), eat the squeaky cheese curds (available everywhere!), and if you’re there in winter, head to a bar for tailgating and transportation to one of the state’s football games.

 

#7 Kiev, Ukraine

13775957_10210260440975744_9077903166833460651_n (1)The capital city of Ukraine has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the past few decades, but that isn’t so evident when traipsing around the city as an excited tourist. Although Ukraine is not in the EU yet, you’ll find many of the same European conveniences backpackers and travelers alike have come to expect: wonderful public transportation, many downtown hostels and hotels, and a slough of monuments, churches, and parks to wander around. The city is known for its monasteries and domed, Orthodox churches, but I remember it most for it’s extremely cheap and delicious food! Most signs are in Cyrillic (like the Russian alphabet), which I think adds greatly to the city’s charm, but if you’re worried about language skills, the English spoken is quite common and understandable, especially by the younger generation.

Things to do/see: visit the caves and monastery at Pechersk-Lavra, have some Chicken Kiev and varenyky (a local dumpling), marvel at the ornate metro stations, and make the climb to Sky Park, where you can zip line across the river.

 

#6 Huangshan, China

23658757_10215123462988255_8497914411745216999_n (1)“Huang-what?”, you might be asking yourself. Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is not particularly well-known outside of China, except perhaps by avid hikers or mountaineers. However, this city and the mountain it takes its name from are spectacular places for anyone to visit. Lying about 4 hours west of Shanghai (by train), Huangshan is a destination that really has it all: beautiful nature, historical sites, and modern shopping. It might not be one of the largest cities in China (or even close), but it’s still pretty large from my perspective, with a population of 1.5 million. Just outside the city, accessible by bus are the mountains (to the north) and the preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi (to the northwest). All are worth a visit, and will remind people why China is often referred to as a traveler’s dream.

Things to do/see: wander around Hongcun and Xidi marveling at the bizarre street foods, hike Huangshan itself (or take a cable car up and hike down), shop for souvenirs and local teas on Tunxi Old Street, and eat some local Huizhou dishes, including the famous noodles.

 

#5 Skopje, Macedonia

13438928_10210125980614319_195783375429514471_n (1)Known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Macedonia is a small country in southern Europe that most people wouldn’t be able to pick out on a map. The capital city of Skopje, lies in the north of the country and is completely surrounded by mountains, giving it spectacular views from every angle. The city was heavily influenced by ancient Greece, which you can easily see in the large stone bridges and plethora of white columns, but it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russia) and also claims one of the largest numbers of mosques in Europe: talk about a melting pot! The culture there is a unique mix all seeming to revolve around food, the incredibly refreshing šopska salad and potent rakija (locally produced alcohol) for example. While winter brings heavy snowfall to this mountain city, the summers can also be pretty steamy. If you’d like to split your time in the city with time in-touch with nature, a city bus can take you about an hour outside of town to the beautiful canyons around the Vardar river.

Things to do/see: take a ride to Matka canyon, spend an evening in Macedonian Square watching the fountain lights, try the šopska salad, and walk up to the Kale Fortress for panoramic views of the city and mountains.

 

#4 Bergen, Norway

1240561_10208510062337372_7927716375680727965_n (1)Ah, Norway! Land of trolls, fjords, and the midnight sun. When I hear people planning a trip to Norway, usually Oslo and other cities in the southern part of the country are the first to be mentioned. However, I would much rather choose Bergen, a little further north, nestled into the fjords on the country’s west coast. This city in winter or summer is a great jumping off point for further exploration of the fjords, but it has enough to do in town that you might not even want to leave! From town squares and colorful row houses to funiculars and downhill sledding, Bergen has a lot to offer for those who prefer to spend their time on activities that don’t break the bank. However, when the time comes to spend a little cash, a great way to do it is on the food! There is a wide variety available here from traditional Scandinavian specialties to a TGIFridays; the choice is really up to you!

Things to do/see: take a fjord tour (I’m usually not a “tour person”, but these are worth it), ride the funicular up Mount Fløyen and sled down, sample extremely fresh seafood at the Fisketorget market, and walk around the quaint Bryggen Wharf.

 

#3 Savannah, GA

17904108_10212977098970496_5512127965221632585_n (1)Another destination from my homeland (home state even) is Savannah, GA. This seaside city is always equated with the “old south”: plantation houses, buttery foods, and a slower pace of life come to mind. However, this city is a lot more than that. It can cater to a younger crowd nowadays with its bar streets and beaches, but there are also tree lined avenues, old cemeteries, and little antique shops that are great for the traveler with varied interests. Savannah is not as famous as perhaps New Orleans or Charleston, but maybe for that reason, I found it to be less affected by outside influences. It is a city that it uniquely itself: beautiful and eclectic, much like many Georgians I know.

Things to do/see: have brunch at any of the restaurants along River Street (I recommend Huey’s), have a drink or two at one of the bars on Broughton Street, amble under the large oak trees at any one of the numerous parks, head over to Tybee Island for the lighthouse and beautiful beaches.

 

#2 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

22448427_10214825952870688_7496229601924814073_n (1)One of my more recent discoveries, Ulaanbaatar is an unexpected gem of the travel world. A unique combination of different cultures set in a landscape like no other I’ve seen. The city itself has plenty of sights and traditional Mongolian activities and foods, but just outside the city is a completely different side of life in one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. A nearby national park gives breathtaking views of the mountains and vast plains of Mongolia, while wild horses and yak stand on the side of the road grazing in the fields or drinking from the winding rivers. It’s a bit more rugged outside the city, but no less friendly. Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked highly by travelers who are lucky enough to go there. The lamb dumplings alone are worth the journey!

Things to do/see: walk around the ger district, view a temple or two at Gandantegchinlen Monestary, watch the wedding parties taking pictures in Sükhbaatar Square, try a modern twist on Mongolian food at Modern Nomad, and make the trek out to Terelj National Park.

 

#1 Tricity, Poland

13417619_10209884679581944_5470284272553681414_n (1)This destination (and the whole country really) is near and dear to my heart. I spent a year living in Poland and made it my job to explore every corner of the country. What I found was a series of destinations that many people gloss over in favor or Warsaw or Krakow, the more international locales. However, when I think of places to visit in Poland, my mind first goes to its Baltic Coast. Just across the Baltic sea from Sweden, Poland’s “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia sits about four hours north of Warsaw (by car). These cities have an incredibly interesting history, which has allowed them to retain their distinct and varied atmospheres. Gdansk, formally German, has an industrious feel, an international airport, and an impressive city center. Sopot is a resort town with Europe’s longest wooden boardwalk and many fancy shops and hotels. And finally Gdynia, the most Polish of the three, boasts beautiful beaches, several hilly parks, and a ferry to Hel and back. Who wouldn’t want to to see all of that?!

Things to do/see: take the ferry to Hel for the seal sanctuary or the beaches, walk the pier in Gydina to see sailboats alongside pirate ships, watch local artists working in Gdansk’s Long Market, and in winter, enjoy a cup of grzane piwo (mulled beer) at any one of the pop-up Christmas markets.

The Land of Chinggis and Cheese

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Sunset in Ulaanbaatar

Where exactly is the land of Chinggis and cheese, you ask? Mongolia, of course! Although truth be told it should really be “dairy” as opposed to “cheese”, but then the alliteration is completely lost. The Chinggis part (which refers to the Mongolian spelling/pronunciation of Genghis, as in Genghis Khan) is extremely accurate though. Between all the statues, pictures on the currency, and the multiple beer and vodka brands that bare his name, he is well-known in his native land. Catchy titles aside, last week Tucker and I were lucky enough to spend six days in Mongolia, and I could not have been more impressed! Again (this is becoming too common for me!), I failed to think about my expectations before heading off to the “Land of Eternal Blue Skies”, but I know that what we experienced far exceeded whatever I had thought the trip would be. Even with almost zero planning on our part, each thing we decided to try in Mongolia turned out better than we could have imagined, and Tucker and I came away from Mongolia with so many unique memories and experiences that will truly last a lifetime.

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     I promise I was working.

I should start this post by saying that my time in Mongolia was first and foremost work-related. I was able to travel to Mongolia in order to give a teacher-training workshop at the University of Finance and Economics as well as to attend and present at the local TESOL conference in Ulaanbaatar. However, to say that work things were my ONLY motive would be completely false. I really wanted to tourist around Mongolia – and I did! Apart from the professional experiences, which were phenomenal by the way (I met such great people and had a wonderful time exchanging ideas with fellow English teachers, not to mention an epic mini-reunion of Fellows), I was able to carve out some time for exploring the city of Ulaanbaatar, trying some of Mongolia’s traditional dishes, and even taking a road trip out of the city. To choose a favorite moment, or even activity, from our trip would be impossible, but here are a few things that stuck out:

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Flight into Mongolia

Our Arrival: Tucker, who is not easily impressed, is still talking about our flight into Ulaanbaatar. The city itself lies in a valley and is full of colorful buildings that range from small circular gers (the traditional round houses also known as yurts) to sleek and shiny, new skyscrapers. Around the city are snow-covered mountains, which with very little vegetation give a stark and geometric feel to the land. Beyond the mountains are the desserts, orange sand stretches as far as you can see from the window of a plane. It really was a beautiful sight, and something I haven’t seen on any other flight. Another thing we noticed upon our arrival was the thorough mixing of cultures. There was text in traditional Mongolian script as well as both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. We saw Italian and Mexican restaurants (MexiKhan might be the best pun-based name out there!), German brewpubs, and plenty of American brands/chains as well. After time in China or even the US, where authentic, foreign brands are sometimes hard to come by, it was a pleasant experience to see such a mix. We also noticed the strangeness that came with using Facebook and Instagram to connect with people again, as opposed to WeChat. China has pretty successfully occupied all my thoughts in the last two months, and stepping into Mongolia was almost like stepping back into something a little more familiar.

 

All the New Knowledge: Although, Mongolia wasn’t quite that familiar as it turns out. On our first day in the country I had to give a presentation during which I had placed my backpack on the floor. Oops – mistake! I was quickly told that’s a bit of a faux pas in Mongolia, and that the other teachers definitely noticed. Another fact we soon learned was that to bump someone’s shoe is a sign of disrespect, and even if it’s done accidentally, you should offer to shake that person’s hand as a sort of truce. Other facts I learned about Mongolia include that their entire country has less inhabitants than the city I live in in China, the language sounds a little more like Arabic than Chinese or Russian, and that lamb/mutton is the most commonly consumed meat. In addition to lamb, Mongolians seem to have an affinity for dumplings, as there were many different types to choose from: the fried kuushuur and boiled buuz, for example.

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Mongolian dumplings

Many had a slightly Chinese flair to them, but the addition of cheese was completely new to me. Another Chinese favorite, milk tea, turns out to be a bit different there as well: it’s salty instead of sweet. And then there’s the bone game. On our tables at several restaurants we found small, felt boxes with four ankle bones inside. The bones are rolled like dice, and the results are read from a list, which can predict your future. We saw fortunes like “will be happy and content” and also ones like “no hope”. Haha!

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Road Trip!

The Nature and Climate: I mentioned what it was like to fly into Ulaanbaatar, but the most beautiful scenery we came across lay outside the city. On our second full day in Mongolia, we went against several people’s advice and rented/drove a car outside the city. While I was extremely nervous for Tucker to drive in a place with a slightly different driving situation (most roads are not paved, steering wheels can be on the right or the left side of the car, and lines on the road are completely meaningless), I’m so happy we braved it and drove to Terelj National Park. The park and the landscapes on the way there and back were absolutely breathtaking. Flat sandy plains (complete with yaks), rocky mountain formations, a few sparkling rivers, and the snowy mountains in Terelj were all beautiful.

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Terelj National Park

Also, they are not kidding about the blue skies thing; they were by far the bluest skies I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve been to Montana). I was also incredibly happy to be in a colder climate again! Hefei, Orlando, and Atlanta – the last three cities in which I’ve lived are way too hot and humid for my taste. Mongolia was simply cold, and I loved it! We saw several flurries during our time there, and I relished my time in big, fluffy jackets, scarves, and gloves.

 

 

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Pretty epic, no?

Overall it was an incredible place to visit, even for just a short time. The people we met in Mongolia, including the hostel staff, the car renter, the teachers I encountered at the conference, and even the strangers who approached us in the street (looking to practice their English, of course), were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and we’d like to offer them our sincerest “bayarlalaa” (thanks). I highly recommend traveling to Mongolia if you ever get the chance! It’s very high on my list to re-visit, and I hope that happens sooner rather than later!